Reading Shakespeare's As You Like It
Reading Shakespeare's As You Like It

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Reading Shakespeare's As You Like It

4 The play in performance

In the final activity in this course, you will address the issue of performance.

It has often been argued in the past that Shakespeare’s plays should ideally be experienced on the stage rather than on the page, that they are fundamentally ‘theatrical’ rather than ‘literary’ texts, and that Shakespeare wrote them primarily for performance. There is a great deal to be said for this point of view, of course, and a good performance, whether watched in the theatre, or on the TV, cinema or mobile phone screen, or heard in an audio recording, brings life to Shakespeare’s words in a special way that’s difficult for an individual reader to equal. There is, however, as I hope this course has demonstrated, also a great deal to be gained from a patient look at the details of Shakespeare’s language. Shakespeare was certainly, as the cliché goes, a ‘man of the theatre’. An actor himself, he worked closely with the theatrical company he was associated with (‘The Lord Chamberlain’s Men’, later renamed ‘The King’s Men’). It has recently been argued, indeed, that the closeness of this company-playwright relationship was unique in Shakespeare's time (van Es, 2013). It is quite possible, however, and has been argued forcibly by Erne (2003), that Shakespeare nevertheless also wanted people to read the printed texts of his plays, some of which (Hamlet, for instance) were published in versions much too long for performance in his own time.

Activity 5

You now have an opportunity to compare the ‘production in your head’ that you have been imagining as you read the play with a performance of a few lines by professional actors. Watch the short video below, in which the director Michael Oakley runs a workshop with actors from an Oxford Shakespeare Company production of As You Like It, and in which Oakley and Professor Richard Danson Brown from The Open University discuss the play. Before you do so, however, reread the ‘mock marriage’ section of Act 4, Scene 1, from Celia’s words ‘Will you, Orlando . . ’ to Rosalind's ‘runs before her actions’. As you read, make notes about how you think the actors might speak the lines (and perhaps be positioned in relation to each other on the stage and/or move about) in a production of the play. Focus on each line spoken by each character in turn. You can either read the text as given earlier in the course [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] or on the Internet Shakespeare Editions website (lines 2038–2050, with notes indicated by the green underlining).

Compare your notes to two of the three workshop performances of the lines: the first performance (5 minutes 47 seconds into the video) and the third performance (8 minutes, 25 seconds into the video). (Be warned that there are a couple of minor variations in wording in the performances.) Did anything take you by surprise? Which of the performances do you prefer? Why?

When you have finished, click ‘Reveal discussion’.

Download this video clip.Video player: a334_1_performing_as_you_like_it.mp4
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ROSALIND: He comes armed in his fortune, and prevents the slander of his wife.

ORLANDO: Virtue is no horn-maker, and my Rosalind is virtuous.

ROSALIND: And I am your Rosalind.

CELIA: Ah, and it please him to call you so, but he hath a Rosalind better leer than you.

MAN: There's a real tradition about how critics, but also theatre professionals have approached Shakespeare.

ORLANDO: Good day and happiness, dear Rosalind.

JAQUES: Nay, then God be with you if you speak in blank verse.

MICHAEL OAKLEY: The plays have endured because they're still talking about human behaviour and human feelings. And we're still learning from them.

MAN: The old-fashioned view was that the text was king. The more recent one is that performance is king, that Shakespeare's text was always primarily written for the theatre, for actors on the stage, and for a paying public.


NARRATOR: The Oxford Shakespeare Company is putting on a production of As You Like It. Like all professional productions, this outdoor production is the result of a careful progression from page to stage.

ORLANDO: Good day and happiness, dear Rosalind.

JAQUES: Nay, then God be with you if you speak in blank verse.

NARRATOR: In this workshop commissioned by the Open University, Michael Oakley and the actors are exploring Act IV, Scene One.

MAN: I chose this scene, I think, because firstly, because it's always one that I liked and enjoyed a lot from when I first saw the play. I thought this was really sexy, funny, and I think that has to do with the fact that actually not a lot goes on.

What I really wanted out of this was to see some of the process through which actors and the director make a section of the text happen, how they make it happen for performance.

ROSALIND: Well, how now, Orlando. Where have you been all this while? You a lover? If you serve me such another trick, never come in my sight more.

ORLANDO: Fair Rosalind, I come within an hour of my promise.

ROSALIND: Break an hour's promise in love.

ORLANDO: Pardon me, dear Rosalind.

ROSALIND: Nay, if you be so tardy, come no more in my sight.

She's dived straight in with the lesson.


ROSALIND: But now it is a lesson.

MICHAEL OAKLEY: Yeah. Yeah, just watch what you're playing, because she's being much nicer to you. So you don't-

ORLANDO: I don't know, but it's still kind of like, wait.


ORLANDO: I'll lessen it.

MAN: What I think we see, in essence, is a kind of practical tutorial in love. There is a sense in which Rosalind's saying, "You think it's all going to be heart and flowers. Baby, I have to tell you it won't be."

ROSALIND: But come. Now I will be your Rosalind in a more coming on disposition. And ask me what you will. I will grant it.

ORLANDO: Then love me, Rosalind.

MICHAEL OAKLEY: Very good. Now I know that I know I'm stopping you before you've got into run of this, but that's a very important moment. It's a very wonderful insight into their relationship, because she saying, come woo me, woo me, I'm here, I'm here. Come and woo me. And he's like, I just want to kiss you. No.

So what she's saying is now is, I see. I've got to woo you. This is how our relationship is going to go. It's a wonderful phrase.

ROSALIND: Coming on.

MICHAEL OAKLEY: A more coming on disposition. And it's more, you know, I'll be the instigator.

I like that you play it honestly, because I think it really confuses Orlando.


ORLANDO: Constant state of confusion for Orlando.

MICHAEL OAKLEY: Constant state of confusion.

ROSALIND: Doing the workshop gives you the opportunity to play extremes. So you're kind of going to rehearse with what you've done previously, and so your character is already sort of established. And with the workshop, you get a bit more freedom, and you go, OK, let's really take that to one massive extreme, and just see what it does.

MICHAEL OAKLEY: Our job is to make sure that the audience believe that the people they're watching on stage are those people. Therefore, there's a strong emphasis on character. And in a text, whereby the text is over 400 years old, how do you- how do we make those characters credible? How do we get the words to sound like we are making them up on the spot?

Within a few minutes, they want to get married. And you know, the very- it's a very needy world. You know, Orlando's like, just love me, Rosalind. And she's like. OK. And let's get married. They're very heady. And you've got to treat that with utter respect.

Why this is so incredible for an Elizabethan audience, is that it's a boy playing a girl playing a boy marrying a boy being married by a boy playing a girl doing a man's role.

GIRL: Yup.

MICHAEL OAKLEY: And as in a priest. It is, it is ground-breakingly audacious, and ground-breakingly incredible image for that first audience to contemplate. We don't quite get that.

Now try make this more than you're used to, a real wedding, and real solemn, solemnity. And those vows, you really mean them, and they're very separate from the other.

CELIA: Will you, Orlando, take to wife this Rosalind?

ORLANDO: I will.

ROSALIND: Aye, but when?

ORLANDO: Right now. As fast as she can marry us.

ROSALIND: Then you must say, "I take thee, Rosalind, for wife."

ORLANDO: I take thee, Rosalind, for wife.

ROSALIND: I might ask for your commission, but I do take thee, Orlando, for my husband.

MICHAEL OAKLEY: When the extraordinary moment of the marriage takes place, on the page, you just have the words of a marriage vow. They're words we all know. It hasn't really changed that much over the years. But when you think of a wedding, you think of the solemnity of the words. Those vows are given a weightiness and solemnity because it's an emotional moment.

It's very good, and it works, that the vows are separate textually from the other dialogue, because it ups that moment. If you rush it- do the- we'll just do it without doing that.

ROSALIND: Without the pausing for the vows? Where from?

MICHAEL OAKLEY: From "Do you, Orlando?"

ROSALIND: So just power through that.

MICHAEL OAKLEY: Just power through. Just power through.

CELIA: Do you, Orlando, have to wife this Rosalind?

ORLANDO: I will.

ROSALIND: Aye, but when?

ORLANDO: Right now, as fast as she can marry us.

ROSALIND: Then you say, "I take thee, Rosalind, for wife."

ORLANDO: I take thee, Rosalind, for wife.

ROSALIND: I might ask for your permission, but I do take thee, Orlando, for my husband.

MICHAEL OAKLEY: Now, how did that feel?

ROSALIND: It feels- when you say that to someone very slowly and let it affect you as well-

ORLANDO: It's such a massive part of our society in a way. You know?


MICHAEL OAKLEY: It's a massive life event, pledging your vow. But of course, it- it's the words you both desperately want to hear.

ORLANDO: And say.



MICHAEL OAKLEY: And I think in that moment, if you just play how we played it that time, muddling through it, it lessens this incredible moment that Shakespeare's focusing, that I think it's got to be focused for the audience.

NARRATOR: As the workshop progresses, the director and actors refine their interpretation.

ROSALIND: Come, sister. You shall be the priest and marry us.


Give me your hand, Orlando. What do you say, sister.


ORLANDO: I beg you marry us?

CELIA: Cannot say the words-

ROSALIND: You must say I take-

CELIA: Go to. Will you, Orlando, take to wife this Rosalind.

ORLANDO: I will.

ROSALIND: Aye, but when?

ORLANDO: Why, now. As fast as she can marry us.

ROSALIND: Then you must say, I take thee, Rosalind, for wife.

ORLANDO: I take thee, Rosalind, for wife.

ROSALIND: I might ask you your commission, but I do take thee, Orlando, for my husband. There's a girl goes before the priest, and certainly, a woman's thoughts run before her actions.

ORLANDO: So do all thoughts.

MICHAEL OAKLEY: Ah, yeah, yeah. Jolly, jolly, jolly. You know, jolly, jolly, jolly.


MICHAEL OAKLEY: Well, well, you know-

ORLANDO: It's just a different-

MICHAEL OAKLEY: It's just a different feel. I think the joy of this play is when the audience sees the game forgetting it's the game. Forgetting it's role play, and they forget it's role play. I don't think you ever see it as anything other than the truth.

Yeah, sometimes something feels good for actors. It feels wonderful in a workshop, and they really, yeah, yeah, they come off, I really felt that tonight. And I'll be like, but the audience didn't, because it was too much about you. You know, you have to let the audience in. And workshops good for that sort of thing, because you get what feels good, and what works, and what communicates well. And when an actor really believes what they're doing, the audience will really believe what they're doing, because there's a truth.

WOMAN: There's the tickets and your receipt. Have you heard about the seating of where-

MAN: We know where we're seating.


JAQUES: I have neither the scholar's melancholy, which is emulation, nor the musician's, which is fantastical.

NARRATOR: Performance and text come together on the night. The debate over which is king will no doubt run and run. The arguments are more subtle these days, but they still depend on your perspective.

MAN: I'm trained as a text person. So my own view is very much that there is a middle course between these extremes. These days, critics and scholars are saying, look, yes, Shakespeare did write for the stage, but he or his associates were not above trying to make money from the theatrical script when it's published as a book.

ORLANDO: Pardon me, dear Rosalind.

ROSALIND: Nay, if you be so tardy, come no more in my sight. I had as lief be wooed of a snail.

ORLANDO: Of a snail?

ROSALIND: Aye, of a snail. For though he comes slowly, he carries his house on his head. A better jointure, I think, then you make a woman. Besides, he brings his destiny with him.

ORLANDO: What's that?

ROSALIND: Why, horns.

MICHAEL OAKLEY: I do think performance is King, and how wonderful that you could see six productions of As You Like It, each with a different focus.

CELIA: Will you, Orlando, take to wife this Rosalind.

ORLANDO: I will.

ROSALIND: Aye, but when?

ORLANDO: Right now, as fast as she can marry us.

ROSALIND: Then you must say, "I take thee, Rosalind, for wife."

ORLANDO: I take thee, Rosalind, for wife.

ROSALIND: I might ask for your commission, but I do take thee, Orlando, for my husband.

MICHAEL OAKLEY: Shakespeare gets emotion better than any writer who's ever lived. So ignore that at your peril, I think.

End transcript
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Even though we are only dealing with a few seconds of dialogue, there are many possibilities here. Shakespeare does not spell out exactly how the actors should approach the scene. This is not unusual: it is, in fact characteristic not only of much of the rest of As You Like It, but of Shakespeare's other plays as well. Many of the most striking moments in Shakespeare’s works can in fact be said to derive much of their power from such ambiguity – that is from things not being explained or made completely clear. At such moments, a great deal of room is left for readerly and actorly interpretation.

In this scene, for example, how do you think Orlando should say ‘I will’? Flirtatiously? Deadly seriously? Mock dramatically, with a twinkle in his eye? Reluctantly, embarrassed at having to go through with such a silly game? I find that I agree with Michael Oakley that the third very speedy version of the scene in the video loses some of the seriousness that should be present in the ‘ceremony’, and that the pause he talks about helps underline that seriousness. The first, more ‘solemn’ performance, however, seems rather static.

My own reading of the line ‘I might ask for your commission’ is that it should be spoken by Rosalind to Celia in her role as ‘priest’, rather than to Orlando. (I think Rosalind is admitting to ‘the priest’ that she should wait for her/his authority [‘commission’] before saying that she will ‘take’ Orlando; in other words, that she should wait for Celia to ask ‘Will you, Rosalind . . .?’) At this point, then, I wouldn’t, as Oakley does, have Rosalind and Orlando looking into each other’s eyes. But there’s nothing definitive about my reading, and you may well think Oakley has got it right.

How did you imagine Celia saying her lines? In some productions, she is clearly irritated throughout the mock wedding, upset at the serious turn events seem to be taking and unhappy at the prospect of losing her friend. In the video, we get a glimpse of this at the end, when the actress playing Celia stalks off.

In the video, the actors line up on stage in quite a formal arrangement, but there is no need for them to do this. There are lots of other possibilities. One or more of them, for example, might have to be physically pulled over to take part in the ‘ceremony’, there might be a kiss at the end (or in the middle), and so on.


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